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Heroes of Faith: Fred Rogers

How many of us remember the friendly, warm smile of a somewhat nerdy little man walking through a door and singing, “It’s a Beautiful Day in This Neighborhood!” (Yes, those are the correct words—shocked huh?!) He was unassuming and the complete opposite of everything on television. He came in, changed his jacket to a cardigan, and changed into his tennis shoes to prepare us for a relaxing visit with Mr. Rogers. The simplicity was intentional, and he invited us to join him in a safe place to explore the make-believe world.

The appeal of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood spanned many generations and cultures. Yet, it’s still hard to imagine such a program left its mark on our lives. Since the completion of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, nothing has ever taken its place.

“It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor Would you be mine? Could you be mine?” ~Fred Rogers

Fred McFeely Rogers was born on March 20, 1928, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburg. His father, James Rodgers, was a successful businessman and his mother, Nancy (McFeely), was a homemaker and craftswoman. Fred was named after his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely, who is listed in his official biography as simply an “entrepreneur.”

Fred’s father was the owner and manager of Latrobe’s largest cooperation, The McFeely Brick Company. His mother gave up her dreams of becoming a physician to be a lifelong volunteer at the local hospital. She spent much of her spare time knitting sweaters for American Servicemen fighting in Europe. One can see how Fred’s family influenced him to become the hero we all know and love.

Mr. Rogers was not only a television host but also an author, producer, playwright, and Presbyterian Minister. Although there have been many unfounded rumors that Mr. Rogers’ was once a Navy SEAL or a military sniper, of course, none of these rumors were true. Perhaps it is hard for the average American to imagine a man with such gentleness and purity of spirit to have existed without some reason to become that way. The same was true for the renowned painter Bob Ross, though he was once a drill instructor during the Vietnam war.

Biographies of Fred Rogers indicate that he had a difficult childhood. He was introverted, overweight, and suffering from asthma. He was mercilessly bullied for his weight and called “Fat Freddy” by his tormenters.” The recent documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018), shared that Rogers had a lonely childhood and often created imaginary friends, and at one point, created his “own world from the stuffed animals and the ventriloquist dummy” he owned.

In a recorded NPR interview the Rogers (1984), host Terry Gross discussed his life and maturity. Rogers explained it wasn’t until high school that he finally became comfortable with who he was as a person. He told Gross that one of the young men who helped him was the High School football team captain.

Fred Rogers attended Dartmouth college for two semesters before transferring to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. There he studied music and graduated with high honors in 1951. He then attended Pittsburg Theological Seminary, graduated again with high honors with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1962, and was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister the following year.

Rogers did not accept the normal path for a recent seminarian. He focused, instead, on ministry to families and children. In 1951 he visited his parents to see a brand-new television in the living room. He had a love/hate relationship with television. He loved the function and service it provided but deeply hated the types of programming available. He felt the programming was detrimental to the nurture of children and families and set his heart on a mission to change that fact.

Fred’s first gig was on The Children’s Corner, a local public television station. Here Fred worked with Josie Carey, the show’s host, to develop puppets and music for the program. This is when Rogers invented many of the puppets and characters that appeared in his later program. “Daniel the Tiger” was a stuffed animal given to him by the station manager, Dorothy Daniel. “King Friday XIII” and “Queen Sarah Saturday” were some of his later creations, naming Queen Sarah after his wife, Sara Joanne Byrd. Others that he created included “X the Owl,” “Henrietta,” and “Lady Elaine.”

While working on the show, Rogers completed his ordination requirements and enrolled at the University of Pittsburg’s graduate school of child development. While there, he began working with child psychologist Margaret McFarland and she became a close friend and advisor to Fred’s program creation. Sally Flecker, a Rogers biographer, said much of his “thinking about and appreciation for children was shaped and informed” by McFarland (Sally Flecker. “When Fred Met Margaret.” Pitt Med. University of Pittsburg.) She was an indispensable asset to Mr. Rogers’ productions.

What do you do with the Mad that you Feel? When you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong… And nothing you do seems very right? What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag? Or see how fast you go? It’s great to be able to stop When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong, And be able to do something else instead And think this song: I can stop when I want to Can stop when I wish I can stop, stop, stop any time. And what a good feeling to feel like this And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside That helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a woman And a boy can be someday a man. Music and Lyrics by Fred M. Rogers. © McFeely-Rogers Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired nationally in 1968 and completed 895 episodes. The last original episode was aired in 2001, but PBS has aired reruns on its regularly scheduled programming. According to multiple sources, by 2016, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was the third longest-running program in PBS history. Today, Mr. Rogers slips to 12th behind shows like “Sesame Street,” “Great Performances,” and “News Hour,” with Sesame Street holding the top spot.

Fred met Sara “Joanne” Bryd in Jacksonville, Florida, while attending Rollins College. They were married from 1952 until his death in 2003. They had two sons together, James and John. He was a pescatarian (vegetarian who eats only meat from fish) and an animal rights activist.

Daniel Burke, in a program on CNN, “Mr. Rogers Was A Televangelist To Toddlers,” (2019), commented on Roger’s struggle with personal “anger, conflict, and self-doubt.” He studied mysticism, Judaism, and Buddhism to inform his deep Christian faith and spiritual life. Maxwell King called Rogers a “unique television star with a real spiritual life,” emphasizing “patience, reflection, and silence.” Joanne reports that they valued simplicity and a frugal lifestyle even though the programming brought the Rogers’ a means of wealth.

Fred Rogers loved to play the piano and swim laps in the pool. He overcame his obesity and weighed 143 pounds most of his adult life. According to Rogers to Maxwell King, 143 represented his life’s mission. The number 143 represented the sentence “I love you,” with one letter for “I,” four for “love,” and three for “you.”

Rogers retired in 2001, but remained active in his study, public appearances, and serving as chancellor of Saint Vincent College. A year later, he suffered terrible stomach pains and, after medical examinations, revealed he had stage four stomach cancer. He delayed treatment until after the 114th Annual Tournament of Roses Parade in January 2003 and later underwent surgery. However, he died two months later, on February 27, 2003, at his home.

Roger’s death was lamented worldwide, with many newspapers running his obituary on the front page of the next day’s paper. Then, on March 1, 2003, the family gathered for a private funeral service at Unity Chapel at Unity Cemetery in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The funeral was attended by 80 close friends and family and was conducted by the family’s retired pastor and friend, the Reverend William Barker. Rev. Barker was a close friend of Rogers and even provided the voice for “Mr. Platypus” on the show. Rogers is interred in a mausoleum in Latrobe owned by the family. Later, on May 3, 2003, a public memorial service was held at Heinz Hall in Pittsburg, where 2,700 people attended.

References & Recommended Sources

Morgan Neville, director. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (YouTube) Tremolo Productions, 2018. 93 minutes.

Michael Keaton, Fred Rogers. Rogers: America’s Favorite Neighbor. (DVD) Triumph Marketing, LLC, 2004. 180 minutes

Marielle Heller, Director. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. (Netflix). TriStar Pictures, 2019. 109 minutes.

Maxwell King. The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. (Abrams Press, New York.) 2019.

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